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Image:Merge-arrow.gifIt has been suggested that this article or section be mergedinto Consciousness. ([[{{{2|: talk:Consciousness}}}|Discuss]])

Conscience is a moral facultythat leads one to believe he is making a morally right or wrong decision. Popular usage of the term often describe it as a personal "feeling" or "intuition", sense, or feeling that impels individuals to believe that particular activities are morally right or wrong. Some metaphors about conscience appear, such as the "voice of conscience" or "voice within", which are fine provided that we realize that metaphors have limits as the expressions surely do.

Many churchesconsider following one's conscience to be as important as, or even more important than, obeying human authority. This can sometimes lead to moral quandaries. "Do I obey my church/military/political leader, or do I follow my own sense of right and wrong?" Most churches and religious groups hold the moral teachings of their sacred texts as the highest authority in any situation. This dilemma is akin to Antigone's defy of King Creon's order, appealing to the "unwritten law" and to a "longer allegiance to the dead than to the living"; it can also be compared to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, in which he claimed that he had followed Kantianphilosophy by simply "doing his job" instead of entering a state of civil disobedience[{{fullurl:Template:FULLPAGENAME}}#endnote_Arendt].


  • 1 What is conscience?
  • 2 Differing Views of Conscience
    • 2.1 Aquinas
  • 3 World Conscience
    • 3.1 Joseph Butler
  • 4 Medieval conceptions of conscience
  • 5 Conscience in Catholic theology
  • 6 Conscientious acts
  • 7 Law
  • 8 Endnotes
  • 9 See also
  • 10 External links

What is conscience?

The 1913 Webster's dictionary defines conscience in the modern sense as

  • the faculty, power, or inward principle which decides as to the character of one's own actions, purposes, and affections, warning against and condemning that which is wrong, and approving and prompting to that which is right;
  • the moral facultypassing judgmenton one's self;
  • the moral sense.

It quotes William Shakespeare's Richard III from the play of the same name as saying:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.

and William Whewell:

As science means knowledge, conscience etymologically means self-knowledge . . . But the English word implies a moral standard of action in the mind as well as a consciousness of our own actions. . . . Conscience is the reason, employed about questions of right and wrong, and accompanied with the sentiments of approbation and condemnation.

Any consideration of conscience must consider the estimate or determination of conscience and the resulting conviction or right or duty.

Adam Smithsaid:

Conscience supposes the existence of some such [i.e., moral] faculty, and properly signifies our consciousness of having acted agreeably or contrary to its directions.

Martha Stout, Ph.D., in her book "The Sociopath Next Door" defines conscience as the "intervening sense of responsibility [or obligation] based on emotional attachment [or connectedness]."

Differing Views of Conscience

Views of conscience are not mutually exclusive, as can been seen by the quotes above, and by many other scholars. Although there is no generally accepted definition of what conscience is or what its role in ethicaldecision-making is, there are two main factors that determine which stance is adopted.

  1. Secular views'(including the psychological, sociological, humanitarianand authoritarianviews.)'
  2. Religious views'(including the Divine Command Theory, the works of Newman, Aquinas, Butler, Bonhoefferand so on)'.
  3. philosophical views'(including Hegel's Philosophy of Mind)'


St. Thomas Aquinasclaimed that it was “reason making right decisions” – so rather than it being "some-thing", it is a process. It must be noted that although Aquinasappears to take on an almost nonchalant view of conscience, he still argued that the reason itself could only come from God. If you are doing good, then it must come from the only source of goodness – God.

For Aquinas, our God-given ability to reason will lead to knowledge of synderesis. Synderesis is an innate awareness of good and evil that cannot be mistaken – we all have this ability to distinguish from good and bad in the same quantity, and feel a moral obligation to act out the synderesis rule – to avoid evil and pursue goodness. Aquinas also described synderesis as an awareness of the five primary precepts as proposed in his theory of Natural Law.

Aquinas referred to the conscience as the 'conscientia and defined as the acting out of the information given by synderesis, or the process of judgment which acts upon synderesis - the "application of knowledge to activity."

Aquinas also discussed the virtue of prudence to explain why some people appear to be less 'morally enlightened' than others. Prudence is the most important of all virtues, as it helps us balance our own needs with those of others and to reason out the knowledge of synderesis. Our conscience may be mistaken if we haven't acquired enough of the virtue of prudence, which can lead to a breakdown of communication between synderesis and conscientia.

To clarify things, take the analogy of a locked safe. The safe itself is the moral knowledge of synderesis, the key to the safe of moral knowledge is the virtue of prudence, and the hands of practical application that apply the key to unlock the safe is the conscientia.

Aquinas reasoned that acting contrary to your conscience is an evil action, since although it may be mistaken at times it is our only guide. The 'erring conscience' as Aquinas termed it, explains the differences that may arise in different people's concientia. You have an erring consciene if you are mistaken or confused about the moral course of action. The question could be raised however: is an erring conscience blameworthy? For Aquinas, an erring conscience is only blameworthy if it is the result of culpable or 'vincible' ignorance of factors that are within one's duty to have knowledge of. If however, an erring conscience is the result of an invincible ignorance of factors that are beyond your control, your actions are not culpable. One must also be aware of Aquinas’distinction between real and apparent goods. Although real goods may be from God, apparent goods (when we follow the wrong path believing it to be a real good) are not. An erring conscience may lead us down the path of an apparent good, which will not lead to human flourishing.

Aquinas reasoned that we should educate our consciences in order to act well and bring our selves in line with the church. He also distinguished between a forward and backward looking conscience. Although it should be applied before an action, it may cause feelings of 'reatus' (guilt) or satisfaction after and action.

World Conscience

World conscience is the idea that with global communication we as a people will no longer be estranged from one another, whether it be culturally, racially, or geographically. Instead, we will approach the world as a place in which we all live, and with newly gained understanding of each other we will begin to make decisions based on what is beneficial for all people.

Related to this idea is the idea of world consciousness. It too, looks at people in terms of the collective, but refers more to the universal ideas of the cosmos, instead of the interconnectedness of choice.

Joseph Butler

Joseph Butlerargued that conscience is Godgiven and should always be obeyed. Butler also said that it is intuitive, as we have the ability to perceive things beyond empirical evidence, and it is therefore it is considered the ‘constitutional monarch’ and the ‘universal moral faculty’. It would appear that Butler is in striking accordance with Situation Ethics – Fletcherwas also an AnglicanPriest, which may have played some part in this. Butler refers to the use of ‘self-love’ and ‘benevolence’ in conscience, which can be attributed to the Agapeof Situational ethics. As Situational ethics is teleologicaland assesses each scenario on an individual basis, it would stand to reason that it supports the use of conscience in every decision. However, as Vardy claims, there is no such thing as a conscience in Situational ethics – only the attempts of making appropriate decisions in situations. One could argue that these ‘attempts’ are in fact the conscience itself, and it therefore does support its use in decision-making.

Medieval conceptions of conscience

The medieval schoolmenmade a distinction between conscience and a closely related concept called synderesis. However, there is evidence that this is an artificial distinction, and that the two terms originally meant the same thing.

Conscience in Catholic theology

Conscience, in Catholic theology, is "a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1778). Catholics are called to examine their conscience before confession.

Obedience to conscience has been claimed by many dissenters as a God-given right, from Martin Luther, who said (or reputedly said), "Here I stand, I can do no other," to progressive Catholics who disagree with certain doctrinesor dogmas. The Church eventually agreed, saying, "Man has the right to act according to his conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters" (ibid., paragraph 1782). In certain situations involving individual personal decisions that are incompatible with church law, some pastors rely on the use of the internal forumsolution.

However, the Catholic Church has warned that "rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching...can be at the source of errors in judgment in moral conduct" (ibid., paragraph 1792).

Conscientious acts

A conscientious objectoris an individual whose personal beliefs are incompatible with military service, or sometimes with any role in the armed forces. The reasons for refusing to serve are varied. Many conscientious objectors are so for religious reasons—notably, members of the historic peace churchesare pacifist by doctrine. Other objections can stem from a deep sense of responsibility toward humanity as a whole, or from simple denial that any government should have that kind of moral authority.

Amnesty Internationalhas created the term prisoner of conscienceto mean a person imprisoned for their conscientious beliefs.


In law, a conscience clause is a clause in a law that relieves an individual from complying with the law if it is incompatible with religious or conscientious beliefs.


  • ^  See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)

See also

  • ethics
  • John Locke, in particular An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, chapter XXVII "Of Identity and Diversity" where he defines consciousness
  • morality
  • moral philosophy
  • moral repugnance

External links

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Medieval Theories of Conscience


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